Hello all! Today marked the end of the Poulton Research Project, the two week excavation of a medieval graveyard south of Chester. The site is located five miles south of Chester in the middle of an agricultural field. For your reading enjoyment (and because I’ve already written it) here’s my field journal.
April 9. 3.56 pm
Took the train down from Edinburgh this morning. Had a stop over in Crewe to change trains. Read Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher while on the train.
Arrived in Chester. Will be taking part on the Poulton Research Project for 2 weeks. Staying at a lovely flat on the River Dee. Just staying by myself, I really am going to enjoy the next two weeks. And! The place that the Parliamentary forces broke through the city walls during the English Civil War and a Roman Amphitheater are just around the corner from where I am staying! I will pass them each morning as I walk to the bus stop! I am going out now to sort lunch and buy groceries for the 2 weeks. Very excited to be on this excavation – medieval skeletons! Need to be on site for 9 am tomorrow and then 9.40 form there. On site until 4.30 pm each day.
April 10. 5.52 pm
First day of excavation complete. Caught bus to the Straight Mile this morning. Met at the milking parlour for debrief. The site is on a very old landscape with finds from every period from Neolithic to Medieval. A large Iron Age settlement is suspected in the region. We saw the finished Iron Age trench (to be filled in next week). It had 9 roundhouses. Massive round-houses built over a period of 200 years. They suspect it was some sort of tribal capitol. The land during the Medieval period (12c-ish) was owned by a the Cistercian monks who build a large Abbey in the area. The Abbey has still yet to be found. The monks kept people off of the land, un-intentionally preserving the archaeology. After 70 years, the Abbey was abandoned and the land laid bare due to increasing pressure from the Welsh border. There was a series of Welsh/English conflicts in the 14c/15c. In the early 15c, a Chapel (where I am excavating) was built by the Manley family. The last time the Chapel appears in records was during the English Civil War of the 1640s where the Chapel was used as a look-out for invading Parliamentary forces as Chester had backed the Royalists.
The Chapel itself is built on the ground of a Roman building (possibly a shrine to a water-goddess). After Roman occupation there are Saxon furrow marks in the soil. A early medieval chapel was built on the site before the larger later one built by Lord Manley. This is evidenced by the buttress on the inside of the Chapel tower. A buttress was a feature used on the outside of a building to support the wall.
I am excavating in the southern graveyard. There are six of us working in the graveyard. We have been allocated into groups of two. My partner and I excavated through the demolition layer which included charnel bone, teeth, slate roof tiles, sandstone, and building mortar from the Chapel. We should expect to find an articulated skeleton by day three or four. The side of the trench has the ball of a femur exposed so either this is a loose burial or a disarticulated bone. Additionally, a geological anomaly created soil that was less acidic and in turn preserved bone much better than most sites around Britain.
The site is in a really amazing landscape with large potential as not many excavation have been undertaken in the area due to the boulder clay soil/idea that nothing was there.
April 11. 6.17 pm
Long day! On site for 9.40 am. Continued to take down demolition layer. Still no sign of burial after a few false leads. The femur head was just that. I found a few other bits of bone but no stratified burial yet. My partner discovered a bit of skull just before the end of the day. Have been excavating quickly now to get down to lower levels but unsure. We have however uncovered a piece of 10c Chester ware which backs up the Saxon connections to the site!
The site directors are very nice and I am learning a lot from them. My knees are sore from today I stopped at Lush for some bath bombs and will take a nice soak after making dinner… I’m thinking salmon and veg.
April 12. 6.52 pm
We have a burial? Or two? Articulated vertebrae and ribs were found today! The cranium found yesterday was actually a second cranium directly on top of our burial. We have excavated down and are currently working to recover the rest of the burial by removing the deposition layer.
We have been assigned a context number for our burial now. Context is an archaeology word for a ‘human action in time.’ A burial consists of 3 actions: grave digging, placement of the body, and backfill. Our feature has three context numbers.
However, our feature has been a little strange. It also has a spare C2 vertebrae and Maxilla (upper jaw). Is there a second burial below? Will be interesting to see if the burial is indeed a burial/double burial/ or a charnel pit. Many questions. The cranium is facing east, so that is a good sign pointing to an articulated Medieval Christian burial.
April 14. 7.34 am
Forgot to write yesterday. Went out for drinks and a tour of Chester! The city is super cool and was founded by the Romans as a fortress, you can still see the Roman grid system in the roads. We met at a pub which was actually located in the old city crypts built in the 11c!
Anyway, excavation went well yesterday. Our burial is very young, probably at least three but no more than four. I exposed the vertebrae and we have recovered the right femur. Still no sign of the right side which is a bit strange. Haven’t been able to figure out how the second cranium fits in either because it is too close to the first and one would expect another stratified burial?
April 15. 10.14 am
Just seated for breakfast on my day off. Yesterday was a quick day on the site. First, we gave short presentations about our burials and excavations thus far. We have continued to clean down our burial.
Our skeleton is very young – probably three but no more than four years old. There are two extra craniums alongside the burial. I excavated the right side to reveal that the right arm (and so the left) have been crossed over the body. However because the burial is so young, small, and fragile we have little hope of recovering finger and hand bones. Likewise, while we have cleaned the ribs and second cranium (to be removed Monday as it shows no sign of stratification). We have avoided cleaning the sacrum because a phD student from Durham is doing a study about parasites found in child burials. Okay breakfast has arrived… will continue later.
Overall, the excavation is run very well and I believe I have truly learned much over the past week.
On Monday, we will be having an osteology course in the milking parlour at 10 am. on Tuesday afternoon, we are getting to learn about medieval archery! I have not expressed my massive interest in archery just yet – I fear it may make me look like a bigger geek that I already am! Today I have the day off and will be exploring Chester for a good coffee house – somewhere to revise.
April 18. 8.24 am
Busy weekend off. Glorious weather and exploring Chester. On Saturday, I went to the the Grosvenor Museum and saw some of the material from Chester’s Roman fort. Next to the Cathedral, the oldest part was built in the 11c! On Sunday, I ate breakfast, went to the Jaunty Goat for revision and coffee and then took the bus out to see the Duke of Westminster’s Estate. He had opened the gardens for the day to allow the plebeian riff-raff like myself a chance to see them. The driveway was long (2 miles!) and no one stopped offer me a lift so I walked.
Monday was back on site but it was raining so we stayed inside to wash finds. We had an osteology unit. It was very cool and we got a chance to look at two different skeletons from the site. I clearly had not gotten a first in osteology for no reason and I was able to successfully age and determine the sex of both skeletons!
It always amazes me what you can tell from a set of remains – nearly everything about a person… but really nothing about who they were…
Cleaned up after muddy day on site and ready to sleep. Today was a typical day will be photographing skeleton tomorrow morning. Lifted 2nd cranium today but third (the one bisecting the right femur) is still a mystery.
Other groups: one intact standard burial near complete. Another group started as a charnel pit(?) but turned into a child burial with potential of being a double inhumation! However, while clearing, a cranium was found inside of a left pelvis! Our supervisor was concerned that they had uncovered a baby in utero alongside the mother! Thankfully, it turned out just to be two more charnel bones. Whew.
Our skeleton is just as interesting however in its relation to cranium 3. As it bisects the right femur, the only was it could have would be if it was placed in first there is a significant grave cut which truncates the child’s burial past mid-femur so there is a high probability that there is a second grave directly below ours. A mandible located close to the cranium 3 could belong to it… but no way to know. Additionally massive amounts of post-mortem damage has affected our skeleton including bioturbation from the nearby hedge line and compression from years of walking over which has actually smashed the skull inward.
Additionally, an archery teacher came today to talk to us about the English longbowman because the site being on the Welsh border was an important one during the Border Wars of the late 13c! The ones that Henry V was involved in during the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV. They have actually found a burial on site which had a large bodkin inside of the sternum!
We got a chance to shoot the bow and although I hadn’t shot a bow in nearly a year… I guess it’s like riding a bike. The archery teacher even complimented my technique. Side tangent: I taught myself how to accurately shoot a traditional longbow and crossbow while researching a paper on the English longbowman during school to gain a better understanding of the medieval sources.
April 20. 8.25 am
Good day yesterday. Photographed and took levels and measurements for the burial. Used the dumpy level and took eastings and northings using the grid system. Filled out context sheets and skeleton forms. Now lifting the burial and should be complete by tomorrow!
Today I lifted the cranium of a small child. Who ever they were, I would like to hope to think they were buried with love and care as they were wrapped in a shroud and lowered into the earth over 600 years ago.
We finalised our burial today, filled out more forms, will plan the cut of the grave tomorrow. I have truly enjoyed this excavation and it has given me huge insights into medieval osteoarchaeology! The teaching has been very professional and well explained. And the constant supply of coffee and biscuits is always a plus. I have learned a lot and have been very inspired to continue my study of osteology.
This excavation has really given me more reason to further my study. Excavating a skeleton has given a sense of gravitas to what I study. As I lifted the cranium from the ground, I thought of the people who placed the body of the child into the ground. I know we will never know for sure, but I would like to think that this child’s parents loved them as much as my own parents love me. I am thankful to have been able to excavate them a get a glimpse of who they were. This adds in a better understanding of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.
However, I know that we cannot lose sight of the humanity of the field. We have been given a unique chance to know our ancestors on an intimate level and I feel I have a better understanding of what sort of relationship that needs to be. The site was very clear about respect for remains on day one. For instance we are not to name the skeletons or take photos to be posted online (which is why there are not many photos in this post). We always have to remember that these were once people who already had a name and a life. We will never know their true name and so will only assign a number.
It’s a funny thing really. We know nearly everything about a person by studying their remains, their age, sex, height, pathology, healed injuries, even DNA can give us eye color, hair color, facial features… we can recreate their faces and see the past with our own eyes. But, who were they? What was their favourite color, food, animal? Who was their best friend? How did they spend their days? That’s the rub. We know everything and nothing about them. It’s exceedingly frustrating but rewarding all the same.
I shook when I raised the cranium, but I knew that I had to be steady. This child deserves to have their life retold and studied, but also respected. Science has a no many ways of helping us to know that past – without studying human remains our history will become lost to us for a brief moment the people of the past have a chance to be relevant again. However, we must always remember with what and with whom we deal.
April 21. 5.53 pm
Today was the last day of excavation. We planned the grave cut and took levels and then spent the rest of the afternoon finds washing. We cleaned a lot of the extra human remains that came from the fill of our grave including the second cranium and multiple extra mandibles. I had a strange experience when I realised that I was brushing a medieval person’s teeth with a modern toothbrush but other than that it was a solid day in the field.
I’m a little sad to be finishing as I really enjoyed going out each day and working. Field archaeology is probably my favourite aspect of my degree. Sure it’s fun to sit around and read articles and debate theory but I always love a chance to lay on the ground in some contortionist position with my head stuck in the trench, dentist pick in one hand, and brush in the other. Someone has to do the dirty work to collect the data sets for the academics!
I feel like you also get a closer connection to understanding the past as you truly get to experience the environment from which the artifacts come.
Anyway, I’m back to Edinburgh on Sunday and then my mom is actually coming to visit for the week because my birthday is on Friday and she’s that sort of mom.
It’s been grand. Props to you for reading all of this.
2 thoughts on “Poulton Excavation”
You’re amazing! Loved the play-by-play of an actual dig, felt like I was there. Yes, Mom has passport, flight, and accommodations. She’ll be there Sunday morning. Love you, Padre’